When Behan became much more tragi-comic than comic
New York couldn't resist the hellraising charms of Brendan Behan when he arrived with swaggering intent in 1960. But it turned out to be a tawdry love affair that ended in his destruction, according to a new book by Dave Hannigan
Published 16/03/2014 | 02:30
To understand how famous Brendan Behan once was in America, it's best to revisit a November 1960 episode of a prestigious New York television talk show called The Open End. For this broadcast, host David Susskind had put together an impressive panel that included Anthony Quinn, Jack Lemmon, Tennessee Williams, Celeste Holm and Brendan Behan.
Even in that stellar company, the Dubliner stood out, especially when he delivered the following verse about the birth of the Church of England:
Don't speak of your Protestant minister,
Nor of his church without meaning or faith,
For the foundation stone of his temple
Was the bollocks of Henry VIII
Two months earlier, his arrival at Idlewild Airport in New York had been greeted by a phalanx of paparazzi. Practiced in the art of the photo opportunity, he paused on the steps of the Aer Lingus Irish International Airlines Lockheed Constellation to give them their picture.
Wearing a dark brown, two-tone suit, with an "Up Down" rosette in his right lapel, he began the process of promoting the Broadway premiere of The Hostage, firing off one-liners.
"One of the policemen just said to me that being a celebrity I was probably well accustomed to a police escort. 'Yes,' says I, 'though usually with handcuffs'."
Many arrive in New York and are cowed by the bright lights; Behan was invigorated by them.
"Politicians who call upon the people for sacrifice and duty to their country are dangerous," he said. "They are entitled to six ounces of lead between the eyes – not in the brain because they have no brains."
The reporters lapped this up and so it began. A love affair between a playwright and a city. It would last just under three years during which Behan spent 14 months of his life in New York and travelling around America, Canada and Mexico.
Although he was sober on arrival and on his final departure in the summer of 1963, the times in between were very often drunken, usually hallmarked by mayhem, and almost certainly contributed to his premature death on March 20, 1964.
At the height of his success, he was chased through the streets of Greenwich Village by an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan who simply wanted to touch the hem of Behan's garment. The Dubliner was so drunk he couldn't speak to the earnest young man from Minnesota and eventually collapsed on to the floor of the White Horse bar, a not abnormal position for him.
This was the company he kept. In between readings at bookstores before adoring audiences, he could be found chatting about the quality of hospitals with Elizabeth Taylor, lunching with Groucho Marx at the Brown Derby in Hollywood, or meeting with Jackie Gleason to discuss the possibility of writing something specifically for him. This became the stuff of his everyday life in America. In Los Angeles, the studio moguls were fascinated by his larger than life and twice as loud persona.
They begged him to write the screenplay for the movie of James Joyce's Ulysses, they squabbled over the rights to his own Borstal Boy and they offered him walk-on parts in films just to try to win him over. In the end, the only tangible return from his stay in tinseltown was an episode of Dr Kildare about a drunken Irish writer that was very obviously based upon his own antics.
He was invited to John F Kennedy's inauguration (the letter from the White House was simply addressed to Mr and Mrs Brendan Behan, Ireland) but didn't go. Weeks later, he became the first person in history to be banned from the New York City St Patrick's Day Parade because the organisers, including an Irish-born judge, were unhappy at the headlines he'd generated during his previous stay.
"I now have a new theory on what happened to the snakes when St Patrick drove them out of Ireland," said Behan. "They came to New York and became judges."
Despite the odd setback like that, he was intoxicated by the excitement and the glamour of it all. Why wouldn't he have been? One minute, he was being invited out for dinner with Tennessee Williams, the next he was hanging with James Thurber.
Then there were the television shows queuing up to have him as a guest. For a while, he was a staple on NBC's Tonight Show where he told Jack Paar, host of one of the most-watched programmes in America: "Occasionally, there's a daycent remark made on the telly, but this is only occasionally."
The recognition brought opportunity too. He was hired at $3,000 per week to compere a jazz revue featuring all manner of luminaries including Nina Simone. That gig didn't last too long. To prepare for Broadway, the show had opened in Toronto where Behan went on a tear that culminated in the production shutting down and him spending a night in jail.
"On Monday, Mayor Nathan Phillips gave me a pair of gold cufflinks," Behan told reporters outside the court in Toronto. "And on Wednesday they gave me a pair of steel handcuffs. I wonder which of these is the proper credentials for a writer? The cufflinks are an honour. The handcuffs show I'm not a statue yet." Against that tumultuous background, it's easy to see why he found it hard to settle back in Dublin once he got a whiff of life across the Atlantic Ocean.
Although Beatrice accompanied him for the first and second sojourns, the third and fourth were more impromptu, solo affairs.
On one of those occasions, Behan told his long-suffering wife he was off to meet somebody for a pint then took a taxi from Dublin to Shannon and flew to New York.
The sober, focused individual from 1960 morphed into a more complicated drunk.
In Hollywood, he'd met and embarked on a relationship with Peter Arthurs. A seaman by trade, Arthurs was a native of Dundalk who, after more than a decade traversing the world on ships, had ambitions of becoming an actor. From their unlikely first joust in a YMCA pool in Hollywood, he became Behan's confidante, lover, factotum, chauffeur, bodyguard, best friend and worst enemy, depending on the mood and circumstance.
In San Francisco, he'd climbed into bed with Valerie Danby-Smith, a young Dubliner who would give birth to his son, Brendan jr, in a New York hospital in February 1962.
By then, Behan was on a seriously downward spiral. He'd more or less stopped writing. Aside from tinkering with Richard's Cork Leg, a play he'd never finish, he was reduced to speaking into a tape recorder so that others could transcribe his utterances into books that were very obvious attempts to cash in on his notoriety. Consumed by drink, dogged by ill-health and tortured by a love life made even more crowded by his interest in rent boys, Behan became much more tragi-comic than comic.
He did his best to sabotage any attempts to help him confront his demons. Towards the end, he emerged from one diabetic coma in a New York hospital room and made a run for it, naked from the waist down.
Desperate for drink, he ended up roaring around the canteen where he spotted a woman decanting vinegar from a pitcher into a jar. He grabbed it from her and slurped it down in one go.
"It's kind of bitter, George," he told his pal George Kleinsinger who'd been pursuing him through the corridors.
A week later, he stood on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth as she pulled out of New York harbour. Beatrice, who had followed him out and was by then pregnant with their daughter Blanaid, saw him staring into the distance.
There was a lingering sadness in his eyes as the city faded from view and he confessed to his wife that he knew he'd never see New York again.
- Behan in the USA by Dave Hannigan, Ballpoint Press, €14.99, in bookshops from next Wednesday, March 19
'He grabbed my shoulders, threw me on the bed and dived on top of me'
Letty Cottin Pogrebin was a publicist for Brendan Behan's publisher in New York. During one of his more epic binges, the 22-year-old was charged with the job of tracking him down. She found him at a party in Greenwich Village, surrounded by a legion of adoring fans, thrilled to be getting the full-on drunken Irish writer experience.
Eventually, Pogrebin got him away from the crowd, and brought him back to the Hotel Bristol. All was going well until Pogrebin made to leave the lobby. Showing the ability to turn dark in an instant, Behan picked up a heavy ashtray and assured her he'd smash the front window of the place if she didn't come up to his room. Behan threatened to cause a scene and to give the publicist all the newspaper headlines she could handle.
Deciding to avoid a fracas, she walked him to the elevator, grabbing his arm and calming him down. Once they reached his room, however, Behan flipped again.
"He grabbed my shoulders, threw me on the bed and dived on top of me," wrote Pogrebin. "If I had pause for any thought at all – other than shock and fear – it was that someone so totally soused could still have such strength and energy. I kicked and squirmed and pummelled him. He was beyond reason. My protests were getting futile. My struggling was getting me nowhere. I didn't scream for fear that my saviours – given the fact of this unsavoury hotel – might be worse than my attacker.
"In full face of the terror that I might actually be raped, I uttered a plea from the primordial depths within me: 'Please Brendan, don't! I'm a nice Jewish girl.' Those words somehow hit him like a cold shower.
He bolted upright.
He sat primly on the edge of the bed and with one hand stroking my cheek, he said: 'Well for Jaysus sake, why didn't you say that in the first place?' While I cringed and trembled in one corner of the room, Brendan paced the floor, suddenly sober and very intense.
Now filled with remorse, Behan began expounding on his theories about the similarities between the Irish and the Jews.
Eventually, in a bizarre sequel to a frightening episode that showcased the darkest corner of his sexual psyche, Behan walked Pogrebin back downstairs, and waited with her on the street as she hailed a cab for home just after dawn.
- Dave Hannigan